by Doug Carpenter


May I Have This Dance?



Yeah. I’m talking to you. And by that I mean all of you. Not just the ones who in their youth had [...or thought they had...] the kind of awesome dance floor “moves” that made them either the envy of everyone watching or [...if it had only been this easy...] the object of someone really good-looking’s desire.

The rest of you should listen up, too. Especially the “wallflowers,” who dutifully retreated to their gender-designated side of the gymnasium, from which they stood gazing with grudging admiration at the “cool kids” out there bravely bopping to the beat and having, it appeared, the time of their lives.

Of course, among them there were those — and believe me, there were a lot —who didn’t realize that they were, in fact, “peaking early,” which meant that at that very moment, they were quite literally as cool as they’d ever get to be. [Obviously that was a long time ago, but it’s still a comforting thought for the rest of us.]

And you can spare me the “Sorry, my dance card is full” excuse, which you know perfectly well went out with ice cream socials, cotillions and high button shoes. [Then again, knowing the fashion industry’s habit for shamelessly hauling out old stuff and selling it to us like their designers just whipped it up, they could be available again on Amazon before you’ve finished reading this.]

But whatever you wear on your feet, regardless of whether you’re born to boogie or merely to be a bashful bystander, I guarantee you’ll be tapping them uncontrollably as you watch the gyrations people subject their bodies to to keep up with the music. Actually, that seems to be something we’re doing more of than ever these days — watching other people dance.

As the first generation to arguably have learned as much from television as from teachers, Boomers grew up watching a virtual master class on “How to Shake Your Booty” that was beamed right into their living rooms through their TVs. Numerous network prime time lineups featured youth-oriented shows like Hullabaloo, Shindig and Soul Train — programs that were essentially advanced classes in modern music appreciation for which the prerequisite had to be the all-time granddaddy of teen TV, American Bandstand.

Hosted by Dick Clark — affectionately [...and, I suspect, somewhat enviously...] proclaimed “America’s oldest living teenager,” AB was a wellspring of contemporary cultural currency, generating both the cold, hard kind its avid adolescent fan base spent massive amounts of on records and concert tickets and the more abstract kind that parents could only pray would buy them even a little credibility with their kids. [Apparently no one ever told them that “cool” can’t be purchased — only rented.]

Yet even with the enormous popularity of current TV shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, it would appear that “dances” — at least as the kind of events we attended back in the glory days of our youth — don’t really happen much any more. And possibly even more disturbingly, neither do the “dances” of the sort we did at them.

Whether everybody [...or anybody who was anybody among those who put the “in” in your particular “in crowd”...] was doing the Stroll, Hitch Hike, Hand Jive, Twist, Loco-Motion, Mashed Potato, Watusi, [...feel free to stop me when you hear one you actually remember doing...] Jerk, Funky Chicken, Monkey, Pony, Frug, Freddy, Swim, Shimmy, Shake or Limbo, there was bound to be at least one you could fake your way through. [Or was that just me?]

Those were just a few that I cherry-picked from the bumper crop of crazes that topped sock hop request lists in the 50s and 60s. But if you crack that chronological window open just a little wider, you let in the wave of other decades’ faves that flooded the dance floor before and after the Baby Boom Generation monopolized it. And the memories they stir up are both bitter and sweet.

After watching with undoubtedly mortified eyes the spectacle of adult relatives sashaying rhythmically through creepily-provocative performances of the Rumba, the Samba, the Foxtrot and the Cha-Cha-Cha, we still had to face the on-going humiliation of being forced to participate in more wedding reception Bunny Hops, Chicken Dances and Hokey-Pokeys than we care to remember. [And just for the record, to this day I’ve never understood what it was “all about.”]

Is it any wonder, then, that we longed for a dance we could proudly claim as our own? And so began the glorious era of [...Hang on a second. The mirror ball isn’t turned on. O.K. We’re good to go...] Disco! Shortly after which ended the glorious Disco era, taking with it no doubt countless unsold pairs of glittery bell-bottoms and three-piece white polyester suits and God-only-knows how many “real” silver and turquoise neck chains. [And with all the shiny, tight-fitting shirts that were left half unbuttoned to show them off, more chest hair than anybody needed to see.]

The rise of Disco, however, coincided with the decline of dances whose less-complicated moves made them more easily accessible and thus more broadly appealing. Sure. People would continue to get down and funky to catchy choreography like the Bus Stop, the Bump, the Hustle and the Lambada on into the 80s. But before you could say “...and five, six, seven, eight,” a chorus line of novelty numbers like the Macarena, the Time Warp and that always crowd-pleasing spellbinder, Y-M-C-A, would trigger an outbreak of dance fever a dozen Deney Terrios couldn’t contain.

Today, dance venues, such as they are, are populated largely by people who dance more generically than specifically. With names like Twerking, Gangnam, Hip-Hop and Break Dancing, these multi-move categories play to our natural desire to be “up” on whatever’s the latest and greatest stylewise. [Healthwise, of course, if you’re from any generation born earlier than, say, the Millennials, a dance with the word “break” literally in its name would probably be something you might want to run by your physician before you run out and sign up for lessons.]

As their fad-driven destinies inevitably demanded, the fame of each did and will ultimately fade, leaving behind only the warm — and usually sweaty — memory of its magical but fleeting moment in the spotlight, along with a few bruises in the general vicinity of the hips as well as the aforementioned well-shaken booty. [It’s amazing how carried away some people get doing the Bump.]

But like the other fallen-from-favor dances that are gone though not quite forgotten, Disco did us a serious solid before it left us to take its place in that great Conga line in the sky. Because for all its pretentious posturing, if only by virtue of the confidence and pride embodied in its attitude, Disco had style. And as a result of having embraced it [...even if we did so while wearing clothing we should never have ever let anywhere near our body...], we now have a little more of that, too.

We should probably also thank dancing for making us a little more romantically wise, since so many of us gained our first insights into the affairs of the heart as couples gliding [...or Strolling, Shimmying, Frugging or Funky Chickening...] across a dance floor. Unless, that is, our emotional epiphany happened to hit us while attending one of the more vigilantly-chaperoned social gatherings of that time, where the rules of propriety required that young bodies be separated by enough space to accommodate the Holy Ghost — which if you think about it kind of turned those “couples” into “triples.” [I assume that thought never occurred to the chaperones, since they probably would’ve fainted dead away if it had.]

As I said, all that happened a long time ago. I’d like to think that, today, we’ve grown enough to leave behind self-limiting labels like “cool kids” and “wallflowers” and are finally ready to allow ourselves the freedom to celebrate National Dance Day — which is observed each year on the last Saturday in July — by getting up, kicking off our shoes and, as the song says, dancing “like no one is watching” — keeping in mind, or course, that every cell phone now comes with a built-in camera and the ability to record and stream live video to everyone you know.

But try not to think about that. It’ll only mess up your moves.

© 2019 Doug Carpenter

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